The MU professor and ethnomusicologist is starting a new podcast about the neglect of Black songwriters and the history of cover songs
Jozie Crouch for Vox

The practice of artists covering one another’s work extends as far back as the classical music era and originated as a way for people to pay tribute to those they admired in the field.

“But then when money got involved, particularly when they’re in the recording industry in the ’40s and ’50s, it became pretty rampant,” says MU School of Music professor Pete Zambito. “They tended to be white artists stealing from Black artists.”

A cover song is a new performance by a musician other than the original composer of the track. Did you know Elvis wasn’t the first performer of “Hound Dog”? Blues legend Ellie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton actually performed it four years earlier.

Associate Dean of the MU College of Arts & Science Stephanie Shonekan is providing her own takes surrounding the culture of covers. “As an ethnomusicologist, I study music,” Shonekan says. “I study the ways in which music is created and what it’s created for and how it functions in society.”

Cover songs are still prominent in the entertainment industry in a variety of forms. Hit-singing competition shows like The Voice and American Idol are built on covers of beloved songs. Newspapers relay frequent headlines about plagiarism lawsuits following the industry-shaking 2015 case in which Marvin Gaye’s family successfully sued Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams for copyright infringement in their song “Blurred Lines.”

In KBIA’s new podcast, Cover Story, Shonekan will interview a guest each week and dive into the context and artistry of iconic cover songs and their originals.

What was the inspiration behind the podcast?

The choices that artists make are grounded in their understandings of the world and the meanings they want to make in the music. In short, I was inspired to think about covers because I’ve always liked to pay attention to what artists do. I thought it would be fun to ask, “Whose is better?” There used to be a (section) in People magazine where they would have two people who wore the same dress or the same outfit and they’d ask, “Who wore it best?” That’s kind of the impetus for the concept for this podcast.

How do cover songs explore larger themes such as race and gender?

I do use cover songs as a device to analyze issues of racism and sexism and so on. For example, there’s a song that Nina Simone did called “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.” Later on, it was covered by people like John Denver and Mary Travers. It’s a beautiful song, but when they cover it, is the freedom they seek the same freedom that she’s singing about? It was written by Billy Taylor during the civil rights movement, so the concept of freedom from different angles is interesting. It helps us think about some really deep aspects of the human experience.

What are your thoughts on covers in the context of plagiarism and lawsuits?

I think that the history of African American artistic expression — whether that’s art or music — that history has been mired in stealing. If we go back to blackface minstrelsy, we know that African American performance was appropriated. When people profit off of the exaggeration of Black performance, that history is difficult to look away from. For so many years, people were making money off Black music, Black dance, Black gestures — and Black people were not making money off of it.

What can listeners expect from your podcast?

Listeners can expect fun and curiosity and a little competition — a little debate over who did it best and why. These are big, iconic songs that we know and love. (Some listeners) may not agree with the take that either myself or my guests have on who did the song better. I hope that listeners expect to come and be surprised.

Come and be inspired to talk and to throw shade on the take that comes through in the podcast.